Film & Television

Preview: The 2019 Academy Awards (#OscarsSoComplicated)

The nominees for the 91st Annual Academy Awards were announced on January 22. But, weeks before that, Oscars buzz had already started. Not because of who was included. But, because of who wasn’t. Specifically, a host. In fact, this will be the first time in three decades that there won’t be a host.

In early December, comedian Kevin Hart announced that he would be hosting the ceremony, following two consecutive years of Jimmy Kimmel. Given the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of just a few years ago, having an African-American host must have seemed like a good idea. Soon after, however, Hart announced that he would not be hosting after all, because of some homophobic tweets he had made. He said that he was sorry he had hurt anyone and that he did not want to be a distraction.

Entertainment and gossip media began speculating on who would replace Hart. Hosting the Academy Awards is certainly a prestigious gig, but not without risk. In fact, The Hollywood Reporter refers to it as “the least wanted job in Hollywood.” For every Billy Crystal, who managed to sing his way through the show’s opening nine times (1990-93, 1997-98, 2000, 2004, 2012) and stay funny without offending anyone, there have been big misses, like James Franco deserting co-host Anne Hathaway halfway through the show in 2011. Or, the inappropriately crude jokes of Seth McFarlane in 2013. Or, the otherwise incredible Neil Patrick Harris’s three-hour magic-trick snore in 2015. Or, the most cringe worthy of all, Rob Lowe singing a duet with Snow White back in 1989. That was years before we all started communicating in acronyms, but the entire national television audience must have thought in unison, “WTF?”

In all fairness, Lowe wasn’t officially the host. There was no host that year. And there will be no host this year either. (I think we can safely assume the Academy won’t repeat that Snow White business.)

Other controversies arose this year as well. A new category was to be introduced: Best Popular Film. The idea was to recognize a movie that might not have impressed the critics, but had been a big success at the box office. (Mission Impossible: Fallout and Mamma Mia 2 come to mind.) While this addition was clearly conceived to please fans and perhaps increase viewership, it was not a hit with the industry. Lowe, Oscars collateral damage himself, summed it up with a sarcastic tweet: “The film business passed away today. It had been in poor health for a number of years. It is survived by sequels, tent-poles, and vertical integration.” The Academy was quick to pull back. It diplomatically announced that it had realized that the decision required “further discussion.”

Another near miss was a recent decision to award a handful of the less glamorous awards during commercial breaks. These included Best Cinematography, Editing, Hair and Makeup, and Live Action Short. The industry’s reaction was immediate and deafening. More than 40 directors, including Martin Scorsese, signed an open letter condemning the move. Spike Lee told the L.A. Times that “without cinematographers and film editors, I would be lost, wandering in the cinema wilderness.” Oscar-winner Russell Crowe was less eloquent but equally against the move. He declared that it was “too dumb for words” and “a fundamentally stupid decision.” Again, the Academy responded, first by assuring the industry that no award category” will be presented in a manner that depicts the achievements of its nominees and winners as less than any others.” Then they abandoned the plan completely.

The Academy Award nominations themselves were the usual mix of anticipated recognition, unexpected snubs, and utter surprises. These days, the Oscars have become the grand finale of a busy awards season that includes The Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, the BAFTAs in the U.K., and the Critics’ Choice. Bookmakers updated their odds as winners were announced for each.

Which leads us to the top honor: Best Picture. There’s a fairly impressive lineup this year, including three films with black main characters (or entire casts): Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, and Green Book, which won the Golden Globe. Bohemian Rhapsody, which had mixed reviews but solid box office, also won the Golden Globe (which gives two best-movie awards. with separate categories for dramas and comedies). A Star is Born, which was an assumed leader prior to and right after its release, has not proven to be the season’s awards darling after all. The Favourite and Vice, although solid films, are not in quite the same league as some of the other titles. My hunch is that Roma, which has received stellar reviews by critics and filmmakers alike, will win. In an unusual move, Roma is nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film this year. It would certainly be a first — and not really a long shot — if it were to win both categories.

Once again, there are no women directors honored (and I, for one, am getting really tired of typing that sentence). As Natalie Portman might say, “The all male nominees are …” Spike Lee for BlacKkKlansman; Pawel Pawlikowski for Cold War; Yorgos Lanthimos for The Favourite; Adam McKay for Vice; and Alfonso Cuarón for Roma. Although Lee is long overdue for recognition, my money (were I a betting woman) is on Cuarón.

Of course, there are no women nominated for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor — any and all efforts toward gender-neutral casting or recognition haven’t achieved that milestone yet. Sadly, though, there are only two women represented in the Best Screenplay categories. And both are co-writers with male counterparts. Deborah Davis is nominated, along with Tony McNamara, for The Favourite. Nicole Holofcener is nominated, along with Jeff Whitey, for Can You Ever Forgive Me? I don’t expect either to win, although I would love to be mistaken (and both screenplays are marvelous).

The fairer sex fares much better in the Best Feature Documentary category, with women represented in all of the nominated films. Clearly the genre offers more opportunities for women. Unfortunately though, documentaries rarely (read, never) have the budgets or distribution enjoyed by dramatic films. I’m betting that the loving and inspiring RBG, produced by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, will win.

The Best Actress category is particularly strong this year and includes some surprises and some newcomers, along with a veteran screen diva, whose time has hopefully come. Yalitza Aparicio, who stars as nanny heroine Cleo in Roma was a schoolteacher before director Cuarón selected her for the film. Her intensely quiet, but deeply felt, performance is a revelation. Lady Gaga generated a lot of buzz — and adulation — as Ally in A Star is Born, but hasn’t earned much in the way of awards yet (except for a tie for Best Actress from Critics’ Choice and for her haunting song from the movie, “In the Shallows.” Olivia Colman has already picked up a Golden Globe and Bafta for her riotous turn as Queen Anne in The Favourite. Melissa McCarthy is wondrous (and a wonderful contrast from her usual comedic roles) as Lee in Can You Ever Forgive Me?. But, I’m both predicting (and crossing my fingers for) older actress Glenn Close. Close has been nominated seven times—the record for nominations without a win. Although some critics complained that it was just ‘Glenn Close being Glenn Close,’ I disagree. I think her role as Joan in The Wife is about as Oscar-worthy as you get. (Good luck, Glenn!)

Best Supporting Actress represents a fine collection of powerful talent as well. Amy Adams is close behind Close with six Oscar nominations to date, so voters may feel she’s overdue for her role as Lynne Cheney in Vice. Another actress from Roma is honored: Marina de Tavira, one of the few professionals Cuarón chose to work with, plays Cleo’s employer. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz (both former Oscar winners) are nominated for their roles in The Favourite. But I’m expecting Regina King to win for If Beale Street Could Talk. And, hopefully, we can look forward to another impassioned and eloquent acceptance speech from her. At the Golden Globes, she was one of just a handful of artists who brought everyone back to last year’s pledges to make Hollywood more inclusive.

After all the confusion, the big announcements and immediate reversals, The Academy Awards has more than usual to prove this year. Let’s hope that the exceptionally talented people honored that night will help bring back some of the glamour and excitement of the show’s glory days, as well as take the industry into its next stage of evolution and a time when a true mix of voices — women’s, black, Asian, immigrant, and LGBTQ — are heard.

(Or, at the very least, help us forget that whole Snow White thing once and for all.)

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  • Christine Lombardi February 19, 2019 at 9:56 am

    Nice wrapup, Alex. Maybe we can do a list of should’ve-been-nominated films, including the peerless SORRY TO BOTHER YOU and LEAVE NO TRACE?